A Random Note on Janine and Ivan’s Essay on Conceptualism

I chanced upon Janine and Ivan’s essay “The Economic Aspect in Contemporary Writing and the Matter of Class in Literature: Reading selected conceptual works” while cleaning up my computer files in my flash drive in a borrowed equipment. This is my first month after my laptop finally gave up after 4 years. It is fine that I found and reread the essay which was hidden under the nondescript filename 229208180-3-PB.pdf. I recall – only now – that I promised to give a comment to Janine about the essay which was published in an academic journal a few months back.

I like the essay’s critique of the “economic reductionist” view of literature, particularly in the conceptual works of one Josef Kaplan who proposes the killing of the rich who are implied to be the only ones capable of succeeding as poets. Indeed, far from being a revolutionary proletarian, socialist, or communist position, it seems to me this expression of hatred against those on the top heap of the social structure for their possession of such comforts as writing is reminiscent of the petty bourgeois pining for absolute equality.

This attack on the supposedly comfortable vocation of the poet, automatically conceived as self-serving privilege, is an expression of “anarchistic” abhorrence of all hierarchies and situations where one individual holds any form of advantage over another individual. As Mao Tse-Tung pointed out in the Five Golden Rays, this is an ideological form from a small peasant or artisinal economy which can have absurd implications in the conduct of the revolutionary armed struggle as conducted by the Red Army:

Absolutely equal distribution of supplies was demanded, and there was objection to somewhat larger allotments in special cases. In the hauling of rice, the demand was made that all should carry the same load on their backs, irrespective of age or physical condition. Equality was demanded in the allotment of billets, and the Headquarters would be abused for occupying larger rooms. Equality was demanded in the assignment of fatigue duties, and there was unwillingness to do a little more than the next man. It even went so far that when there were two wounded men but only one stretcher, neither could be carried away because each refused to yield priority to the other.

The same can be said in the building of socialism for that matter. After all, the abolition of capitalism would not mean absolute equality among individuals but the enactment of the socialist dictum popularized by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Progamme of providing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”.

I am reminded by this “politics of privilege” of Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment which emerges from suppressed aspirations which cannot be acted upon, in this case in the sense of powerlessness of the individual against the domination of the elites over their lives and the seeming fixedness of this oppressive ruling system.

All in all, I find this emergent interest in conceptualist art in the country an exciting development. Revolutionary literature in the country has drawn strength from its infusion of new content to indigenous oral literature or western narrative forms of realism. For sure the same can be done with conceptualist forms, which Janine and Ivan has proven to be self-reflexive and more attuned towards the critique of the social conditions of writing itself, to make it serve the everyday struggles of people engaged in fighting to change the world.


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